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Mudville: April 18, 2024 9:10 pm PDT

Baseball First

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Let’s celebrate the small victories.

This has been a good week for those who truly love baseball with the hiring of Ron Washington by the Angels.

“I’m so happy for Wash,’’ one longtime scout told BallNine. “No one deserves this more than him.’’

Washington, 71, lives and breathes the game and has helped so many ballplayers become better ballplayers and now is getting a second chance to manage after an eight-year stint with the Rangers from 2007 through 2014.

That is huge. Managing is not about improving an analytic driven statistic, it’s about becoming a better ballplayer and that is what Ron Washington does every day, starting at 7 am in spring training where if you ever went to the Braves facility that early in the morning, when they were at Disney or CoolToday Park in North Port, Florida, Wash would be out there with the sun rising over the ballpark and a fielder or two working on small improvements that would lead to big success.

In a small way, the tide is turning a bit in baseball.

Some teams are beginning to understand the error of their ways.

This is a win for the Lost Angels, who desperately need to get back on a baseball track.

This is a win for baseball fans who want to see more baseball and not NerdBall.

This is a win for the Angels organization, but it doesn’t stop there. Former manager Clint Hurdle, another true baseball man and true leader, is set to become Washington’s bench coach.

When you are in the same division as Bruce Bochy, who just won his fourth World Series, guiding the Rangers to their first World Series triumph in their long existence, you had better have baseball people in your dugout to match up with Bochy’s baseball wits.

When Bochy was hired by the Rangers and Chris Young in October of 2022, I wrote here at BallNine and said in multiple broadcast interviews that the Bochy hire was a great move for the Rangers and the game and that true baseball fans should be rooting for the Rangers to win it all because Bochy will make the art of baseball center stage.

The world got to see that this October and they also saw that Bochy did not have his head up his iPad or stuck in some color coded folder like so many of the New Era (middle) managers. He watched the game. He knew where and when to make baseball moves with the goal of winning the game. His patience was off the charts as he pursued victory.

That may sound obvious, but in the wide world of analytics, some good, some bad, the notion of winning, and learning how to win, has been pushed aside. Whether that is winning each pitch, winning each at-bat eventually leading to winning the game, a lot of that has been lost in a baseball world that emphasizes Pitch Shape and Exit Velocity but has not focused on the skills it takes to win.

In sports, winners get the cupcake and these baseball men recognize that.

This is not a showcase, it is not a weekend tournament. It’s a baseball game and your job as a player, as a coach, as a manager is to beat the opponent any way you can.

Ron Washington knows all of this. Clint Hurdle knows all of this. Chris Young knows all of this. Bruce Bochy knows all of this.

Competition matters. Wanting to win matters. Learning to win matters. This is not elementary school where everybody now gets a cupcake for Wyatt or Riley’s birthday.

In sports, winners get the cupcake and these baseball men recognize that.

Even some notable Nerds are beginning to see the light or I should say are being forced to see the light because their jobs are on the line.

San Francisco Giants chief nerd Farhan Zaidi, Dr. Z, was supposed to be so smart and in the new analytical ways of the game and was supposed to build a wrecking ball of a team in San Francisco, you know, kind of like what Brian Sabean and Bochy once built, winning three World Series in 2010, ’12 and ’14.

Dr. Z was going to do it by reinventing the baseball wheel.

Go ask Gabe Kapler how that went. Go ask the Giants, who were losing attendance from the glory years. Turns out that even the Save the Earth, Lose the City, people in San Francisco want to just win, baby.

So Dr. Z has done a 180.

Now baseball man Bob Melvin is the manager, jumping from the clubhouse of quicksand that A.J. Preller built in San Diego to go back to the Bay Area where he was beloved as A’s manager. Watching Melvin’s postgame press conferences with the Padres were painful because you just knew that Melvin was being throttled by the disastrous personality and talent mix Dr. Frankenstein-Preller concocted.

Third Base Coach Ron Washington #37 of the Atlanta Braves looks on during Game Two of the Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies at Truist Park on October 09, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

It may not be smooth sailing in San Francisco, a cold August wind may still blow, but at least all the bullshit has been blown out of the ballpark – and the Giants under Melvin can focus on what is important and winning ballgames. Melvin knows the neighborhood, having managed 11 years in Oakland, walking that fine Moneyball line between baseball and numbers.

He knows where the land mines are in that world.

Did you see who Melvin named as his hitting coach? Pat Burrell has the job.

Bochy loved Pat Burrell on that 2010 Giants team. Burrell loved Bochy for pulling him “off the scrap heap.’’ Wherever Burrell played he was a leader and respected by teammates for his no nonsense baseball first mentality.

As a writer, who always wanted to learn more about the game, it was fun to have a few drinks with Burrell the scout after a game, which I did several times. Burrell is a winner and will avoid the trap of perfecting a swing and instead perfect hitting, if the Giants have the mental and physical discipline to listen to Burrell.

Burrell is one of those hitting coaches who knows he is not working for NASA, he is just trying to get his team to score more runs than the other team.

Winning is the goal.

Do you think Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux was overly concerned with pitch shapes or getting the batters out, 27 outs is the goal, and you have to find a way to get there even if it means employing human roller coaster Aroldis Chapman.

Nerds are terrific at drawing up mathematical equations, but baseball men figure it out. Does it always equate success? No, but at least a team has a fighting chance with true coaches and managers. The team formerly known as the Indians also hired someone from the Bob Melvin tree in Stephen Vogt, who is an ex-catcher, always a good thing, and seems to get it as well so I am looking forward to watching him work. Vogt played six years with the A’s when Melvin was manager.

Brian Cashman’s temper tantrum press conference this past week was also a win for the Baseball First movement because it gave a peek behind the curtain the way Cashman does business and judging from the reactions across social media, his excuse-making is not winning anyone over. The Yankees, with Aaron Judge having the ear of owner Hal Steinbrenner, have to make baseball changes from the way Cashman does business to achieve success in the future.

More baseball, less analytics. All good signs for the game.

Real defense is important again as is putting the ball in play and a team first attitude as opposed to “me first.’’ The game certainly needs changes especially when you consider the dreadful World Series ratings, a follow up to dreadful All-Star Game ratings, a culmination of the fans’ years long frustrations with baseball moving from a mitt game to an MIT game.

It’s not math, Nerds, it’s baseball. It is made to be a game of skill and entertainment. The Math Probability Game is not entertaining.

Getting real baseball people back in the dugout and just as importantly, in player development is a plus. The Angels hired ex-Mets coach Dom Chiti as minor league pitching coordinator. When it comes to their own survival some presidents of baseball operations are realizing it’s time to hire baseball men.

“We need as many as we can get,’’ one top evaluator told me of the move to hiring experienced baseball men.

This is how he sums up what has been going on in baseball through the Nerd years: “They don’t do a very good job, but they keep their jobs.’’

Many bad trends are happening and need to be fixed. One of things The Story keeps an eye on is trends in minor leagues like starting pitchers having their innings cut drastically which creates major problems when those pitchers get to the majors.

The Arizona Fall League, which at one time was an ideal place for young players to learn their craft, has fallen by the wayside. Scouts earlier this fall told me how they were appalled watching the level of play, especially from a pitching perspective, and with that in mind a score from the semi-final game Friday night caught my attention.

Peoria fell behind 9-0 to Scottsdale but won 12-9.

That looks like something out of a Perfect Game tournament. How do teams up by nine not find a way to close out the opponent in a game that gets you to the championship game?

“There is no emphasis placed on how to win and to win,’’ one scout explained. “The first game I had (to scout at the start of the season) were the same two teams that played Friday night. And Peoria was winning 7-0 after seven innings and it ended up being an 11-11, 10-inning tie. I knew I was in for a long haul while I was there. I had a 17-5 game, an 18-12 game, guys don’t know how to pitch. They don’t know how to stop the bleeding.’’

That is happening on a major league level too.

Members of the Surprise Saguaros celebrate on the field after the Saguaros defeated the Peoria Javelinas in the 2023 Arizona Fall League Championship Game at Scottsdale Stadium on Saturday, November 11, 2023 in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Jason Hanna/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Before the Small Sample Size Crowd gets on my case, yes, it is a small sample size but the point is that learning to win is as much a skill as pitch shaping, and running to your iPad after every at-bat to see if you put together your “A’’ swing.

Put the time in to learn how to finish off a team when there is a 9-0 lead in the semifinals. Good for Peoria for not quitting but Scottsdale, they do what it takes to win, don’t be afraid to add on runs, that is all about mental and physical toughness and I bring this back to having men in the dugout who can teach those skills and just as importantly are allowed to teach those skills.

When you have somebody down by three field goals, don’t let them back in the game.

That comes with pitching experience and knowing how to pitch with a lead. But as you know, pitchers are not allowed to pitch like they once did in the minors because of pitch counts.

Scottsdale scored nine in the bottom of the first and then let up seven in the top of the second. This is not some college summer league where things like this happen, this is supposed to be the best prospects in baseball. How about learning how to muster a shutdown inning after a big inning by your team. Enough with the excuse “the pitcher had to sit a long time in the dugout while his team was scoring.’’

Why can’t pitchers stop the bleeding, I asked the scout.

“Because they are only there to throw their inning,’’ he answered. “They are not there to get better from a competitive standpoint and get people out. They don’t give a shit about anything other than ‘What was the shape’ and ‘What was the velocity?’ ’’

There is no emphasis on I’m going to find a way to get outs to protect the lead. Scottsdale used six different pitchers. Peoria used seven pitchers.

Don’t want to wear the kids out because the Nerds will be all over the manager and pitching coach for exceeding the 30-something pitch limit.

Damiano Palmegiani #13 of the Surprise Saguaros celebrates in the dugout after scoring a run in the sixth inning during the 2023 Arizona Fall League Championship Game between the Peoria Javelinas and the Surprise Saguaros at Scottsdale Stadium on Saturday, November 11, 2023 in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Jason Hanna/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Accountability and consequences needs to be every young player’s teammate. Stop young pitchers from being robots on the mound.

Also, several scouts have told me in their scouting of the AFL they noticed on a few occasions a coach hitting balls to the first baseman before the game, infield work, but the coach was hitting from the first base side of the field not the third base side which has been the standard for hitting to second and first base since Ty Cobb. The coach was not creating a lot of velocity either on the grounders that sometimes would hit the protective screen in front of first base.

Again, that’s not the end of the world and maybe they are just trying to keep a coach busy but it is offered as a small peek into what is happening in what is supposed to be a premier learning league getting players prepared to play in the majors.

Good coaches are Masters of the Fungo.

One of the things the Rangers went back to in the Chris Young era was having real infield practice before games. And then a year under Bochy and his coaching staff and the defense was top notch. Little things mean a lot in baseball. Having Ron Washington run the show should help the Angels. Heck, even Aaron Boone now says he wants the Yankees minor leaguers to learn to bunt so when they come to the majors and are asked to do that, they are skillful enough to put down a sacrifice bunt, something that used to be taken for granted.

The really smart teams are not taking anything for granted anymore and they will put the work in to succeed. More real managers and more real coaches will create a baseball atmosphere and that is the first step to winning.

That is why it is important to celebrate these small hiring victories. Small victories lead to big victories.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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